How Spain’s poorest districts are hardest hit in the coronavirus

In the shadow of a Madrid church, a crowd of men and women stand in line to collect handouts of basic foods they can't afford.

How Spain's poorest districts are hardest hit in the coronavirus
People maintain social distancing while waiting to collect food handouots in Vallecas. Photo by Gabriel Bouys

Their working class district of Puente de Vallecas in Madrid is the hardest hit by the coronavirus outbreak that has seized the city.    

It is also the most vulnerable to the economic crisis that has followed.   

Gloria Corrales, a 50-year-old immigrant from Colombia, is one of the roughly 450 people who have started coming daily to the San Jose soup kitchen near the church.

A woman in need receives a free food ration in Puente de Vallecas, Photo: AFP

She used to work for a family looking after a 92-year-old woman, but after the coronavirus hit, she lost her job almost immediately.    

“I got sick with a common flu. They told me not to come back. They feared I would infect her,” she says.

The church has seen several cases of people like Corrales who were let go “out of fear that they could be contagious”, says Susana Hortigosa, in charge of media relations at the parish.   

With more than 22,000 coronavirus deaths and some 213,000 infections, Spain is one of the worst-affected countries by the pandemic sweeping the globe.    

It has hammered the nation's most vulnerable, especially those living in working-class neighbourhoods like Puente de Vallecas.    

Home to around 230,000 people, the district in southeastern Madrid has long been a home to newcomers to the city, at first Spaniards from other parts of Spain and more recently immigrants from Latin America, Morocco and Eastern Europe.

It is one of Madrid's poorest neighbourhoods, with many people working construction jobs or in the hospitality sector, which offer low wages and little job security.

“We are already feeling major effects from the economic crisis which the health crisis has caused. People are suddenly becoming unemployed,” says Hortigosa at her red-brick walled office at the church where her phone rang non-stop.

“A lot of people are asking for help,” she adds. 

Red Cross volunteers deliver food to people without resources in Valencia. Photo: AFP

'Nobody calls'

Spain has still not fully recovered from the sharp economic downturn it suffered during the 2008 global financial crisis, and the Bank of Spain predicts the economic contraction due to the pandemic will be “unprecedented in recent history”.

Pedro Oran, a 53-year-old Spaniard, says work has dried up because of the pandemic.   

He says he normally earns 30 euros ($32.50) a day helping a plumber, allowing him to “get by” even though he had no job contract.

“But with the pandemic, nobody calls,” Oran says, lining up to collect food for the first time.

Behind him stands a woman who used to clean holiday apartments.     

“When tourism stopped, so did my job,” she says.    

Even a 30-year-old Venezuelan rider for a food delivery company stopped by at the food kitchen to fill plastic containers with food.   

He gets paid a few euros for each delivery he makes and is struggling to pay 500 euros in monthly rent for the room he and his wife live in.

'Double fear'

According to a district map published by the regional government of Madrid on April 8th, Puente de Vallecas recorded the highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the preceding two weeks.

Among the victims of the pandemic is a man who taught ballroom dancing at a seniors' centre on the neighbourhood's tree-lined high street.   

He and his wife, who also taught dance at the centre, were taken to hospital on March 7th, the day all nursing homes in Madrid were closed.   

“The husband died, he was 80 and had a splendid appearance,” says Asela Baraja, 68-year-old volunteer at the centre.

From the first floor balcony of a modest building on the high street, Patricia Dominguez, a 55-year-old Colombian widow, says the virus made her “panic” so she was staying at home as much as possible.   

She used to earn 700 euros a month as a cleaner but was fired, as was her roommate who made 600 euros a month looking after an elderly woman.   

Despite getting two 30-euro supermarket vouchers from the Red Cross and help from a local charity, she says times are tough.   

“We are eating little,” Dominguez says.   

“Living with a double fear, of the virus and the economic crisis”. 

By AFP's Laurence Boutreux

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Spain rules out EU’s advice on compulsory Covid-19 vaccination 

Spain’s Health Ministry said Thursday there will be no mandatory vaccination in the country following the European Commission’s advice to Member States to “think about it” and Germany’s announcement that it will make vaccines compulsory in February.

Spain rules out EU's advice on compulsory Covid-19 vaccination 
A Spanish man being vaccinated poses with a custom-made T-shirt showing Spain's chief epidimiologist Fernando Simón striking a 'Dirty Harry/Clint Eastwood' pose over the words "What part of keep a two-metre distance don't you understand?' Photo: José Jordan

Spain’s Health Minister Carolina Darias on Thursday told journalists Covid-19 vaccines will continue to be voluntary in Spain given the “very high awareness of the population” with regard to the benefits of vaccination.

This follows the words of European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen on Thursday, urging Member States to “think about mandatory vaccination” as more cases of the Omicron variant are detected across Europe. 

READ ALSO: Is Spain proving facts rather than force can convince the unvaccinated?

“I can understand that countries with low vaccine coverage are contemplating this and that Von der Leyen is considering opening up a debate, but in our country the situation is absolutely different,” Darias said at the press conference following her meeting with Spain’s Interterritorial Health Council.

According to the national health minister,  this was also “the general belief” of regional health leaders of each of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities she had just been in discussion with over Christmas Covid measures. 

READ MORE: Spain rules out new restrictions against Omicron variant

Almost 80 percent of Spain’s total population is fully vaccinated against Covid-19, a figure which is around 10 percent higher if looking at those who are eligible for the vaccine (over 12s). 

It has the highest vaccination rate among Europe’s most populous countries.

Germany announced tough new restrictions on Thursday in a bid to contain its fourth wave of Covid-19 aimed largely at the country’s unvaccinated people, with outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel speaking in favour of compulsory vaccinations, which the German parliament is due to vote on soon.

Austria has also already said it will make Covid-19 vaccines compulsory next February, Belgium is also considering it and Greece on Tuesday said it will make vaccination obligatory for those over 60.

But for Spain, strict Covid-19 vaccination rules have never been on the table, having said from the start that getting the Covid-19 jabs was voluntary. 

There’s also a huge legal implication to imposing such a rule which Spanish courts are unlikely to look on favourably. 

Stricter Covid restrictions and the country’s two states of alarm, the first resulting in a full national lockdown from March to May 2020, have both been deemed unconstitutional by Spain’s Constitutional Court. 

READ ALSO: Could Spain lock down its unvaccinated or make Covid vaccines compulsory?

The Covid-19 health pass to access indoor public spaces was also until recently consistently rejected by regional high courts for breaching fundamental rights, although judges have changed their stance favouring this Covid certificate over old Covid-19 restrictions that affect the whole population.

MAP: Which regions in Spain now require a Covid health pass for daily affairs?

“In Spain what we have to do is to continue vaccinating as we have done until now” Darias added. 

“Spaniards understand that vaccines are not only a right, they are an obligation because we protect others with them”.

What Spanish health authorities are still considering is whether to vaccinate their 5 to 11 year olds after the go-ahead from the European Medicines Agency, with regions such as Madrid claiming they will start vaccinating their young children in December despite there being no official confirmation from Spain’s Vaccine Committee yet.

READ MORE: Will Spain soon vaccinate its children under 12?

Spain’s infection rate continues to rise day by day, jumping 17 points up to 234 cases per 100,000 people on Thursday. There are now also five confirmed cases of the Omicron variant in the country, one through community transmission.

Hospital bed occupancy with Covid patients has also risen slightly nationwide to 3.3 percent, as has ICU Covid occupancy which now stands at 8.4 percent, but the Spanish government insists these figures are “almost three times lower” than during previous waves of the coronavirus pandemic.